“We are the workers who built Alphabet. We write code, clean offices, serve food, drive buses, test self-driving cars and do everything needed to keep this behemoth running."
The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) was launched on 4 January by 226 workers at Google and its parent company Alphabet, in partnership with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Within their first week they trebled their membership and denounced YouTube for “its insufficient response” to the storming of the Capitol on 6 January.
In 2018 Google deprioritised the motto “don’t be evil”. The company’s main business is surreptitiously acquiring a database of all humanity so it can better sell you stuff, but for the AWU members, “public good” is fundamental.
In 2018 also, workers pressed Google into dropping Project Maven for the Pentagon (drone technology built on Google’s expertise in machine learning) and a censored version of Search for the Chinese state. When it emerged that managers accused of sexual harassment had been given lavish exit packages. 20,000 staff globally staged a walkout. Then Google sacked a leading AI researcher, Timnit Gebru, she claims for her academic work criticising bias and interference from management.
Pay at Google is wild, even for big tech, with a median around $250k. However, Google operates a two-tier workforce, with over 50% of workers as TVCs — temps, vendors, and contractors — who are often second class citizens doing the same work for much less, and more likely not to be white.
This set-up also makes it harder to organise a recognised union under US employment law (AWU is US/Canada only), so AWU is for now a minority union with no labour-law status. Most founding members of the union are from the upper “tier”, but they want to organise democratically for all staff.
“We prioritise society and the environment instead of maximising profits at all costs”, reads the union’s manifesto. But other issues raised by AWU — “top-down decision making and reduced internal openness”, insufficient improvement in diversity and inclusion, and sexism and harassment in the workplace, are standard union fare. Victories on those issues could also help the union spread virally.
As you might expect in a union of coders, AWU has a lovely website. The huge page of names and faces with testimonials about why they want a union is brave and refreshing. AWU will need to convince workers not traditionally associated with trade unionism, and in Google, the golden goose of Silicon Valley.
Tech culture is one of start-ups, “individual contributors” and (usually male) “rockstar” coders on six figure salaries — ideas of solidarity, workers’ control and democracy will need to be learned through struggle.
The AWU pitch so far is mostly responsible capitalism — “our union’s goal is not to be adversarial. Because upper management is reasonable, as long we are reasonable as well it can actually decrease tensions”.
But proper democracy and workers’ control are the ideals of socialism. And a trade union at Google is significant. Let’s hope it spreads as quickly as their search engine did.